Roving through the Kamchatka Peninsula at the eastern edge of Russia, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled into heaven on Earth. Defined by soaring, snow-covered slopes and an abundance of wildlife, this 777-mile-long strip of land appears utterly pristine. But appearances can be deceptive. And this place is far more perilous than you might think.
Due to specific environmental conditions, the Kamchatka Peninsula is a unique place. For the majority of the year, snow shrouds the landscape with a break coming from between the end of May until October. Even then, summers are still quite chilly, and the area is subjected to more rain than other parts of eastern Russia.
Furthermore, the peninsula is home to the salmon-filled Kamchatka River, which stretches across more than 470 miles towards the Bering Sea. Looming over the river are a series of about 160 volcanoes, many of which are active. So given the volcanoes in the area, the peninsula has become known as “the land of fire and ice.”
Interestingly, the peninsula has experienced relatively little human inference. That’s not to say, of course, that the area has been totally immune to the impact of human activity. But compared to other places on Earth, Kamchatka has been left somewhat untouched by people. In essence, this means that it’s home to a wealth of animals and plants.
With such rich biodiversity and stunning landscapes, it should come as no surprise that some tourists visit Kamchatka every year. However, these visitors would do well to stay out of one particular part of the peninsula. You see, Kamchatka is home to a so-called “Valley of Death.”
However, it’s understandable that certain adventurous types might nonetheless take the risk to visit anyway. After all, there aren’t many places on Earth like it. And the peninsula is home to a vast array of plant life. For you see, where there’s a wide range of plants, there tends to be a wide range of animals.
Now, much of Kamchatka is tundra, which basically means that cold conditions inhibit the growth of large plants like trees. As such, shrubs and grass are common throughout the region’s expanses. Having said that, there are also woodlands containing coniferous and deciduous trees in certain parts.
All in all, the peninsula is said to contain more than 1,000 different plant species. This, combined with the the area’s unique topography and its many waterways, means that the animal population is similarly diverse. However, it’s perhaps one species in particular which is most emblematic of the area’s wildlife.
Yes, the Kamchatka brown bear is among the largest of all the brown bears found across Europe and Asia. In fact, when it stands up on its back legs it can measure up to almost ten feet tall. And the peninsula is home to an unusually large number of the creatures. For example, the Wildlife Conservation Society reports there are between 10,000 and 14,000 bears for a land only roughly the size of California.
What’s more, other large animals found throughout the Kamchatka Peninsula include reindeer, the East Siberian lynx and the wolverine. Beyond that, the area is home to a number of species which belong to the weasel family. These include the East Siberian stoat, the Siberian least weasel and the Eurasian otter.
Also, a significant number of animals belonging to the ungulate family are found. These are defined as predominantly big, hoofed mammals. And in Kamchatka specifically, examples include snow sheep and the Chukotka moose. This is apparently the most sizable species of moose in all of Europe and Asia.
In terms of birds, Kamchatka is known to support the gyr falcon and the golden eagle. Additionally, the Steller’s sea eagle – which is among the largest eagles on Earth – breeds on the peninsula. In fact, the area is reportedly home to some 50 percent of the global population.
As briefly mentioned earlier, the rivers of Kamchatka are home to a huge array of wild salmon. In fact, it’s said that the region may well contain the widest variety of salmon species in the world. Indeed, each of the six species which make up the Pacific salmon group are found there. And some experts believe that 20 percent of the world’s Pacific salmon originate from the region.
But the coastal waters surrounding the peninsula are also filled with a variety of living creatures. Yes, aquatic mammals such as humpback whales, orcas and sperm whales can all be found not so far away. And even the blue whale – the biggest animal in the world – has been documented in the sea waters around Kamchatka.
Aside from whales, a number of different species of seal live in the waters there, too. Specifically to the north, walruses can be found. And to the south, sea otters call the area home. In the skies above the coast, seabirds like kittiwakes, tufted puffins and northern fulmars can be spotted.
In terms of people, though, Kamchatka has a sparse population in relation to its size. For almost 323,000 people live there, of which around 13,000 belong to an indigenous group known as the Koryaks. And most of the Kamchatka population can be found in two particular urban centers called Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and Yelizovo.
Now, perhaps one of the reasons that humans never completely colonized the peninsula is because of its topography. That’s to say, there’s a huge number of volcanoes situated in the region. In fact, the Kamchatka River flows between volcanic belts which consist of some 160 individual volcanoes. And apparently, 29 of these formations remain active today.
Yes, and the tallest of Kamchatka’s volcanoes is Klyuchevskaya Sopka, which measures up to more than 15,500 feet high. Not only is this the most sizable volcano in the region, but it’s also the biggest in the entire Northern Hemisphere. However, there’s another which perhaps garners the most attention.
For you see, situated in the Kronotsky Nature Reserve, the Kronotsky volcano is a particularly picturesque formation. And Jutting more than 11,500 feet into the sky, it exhibits notably symmetrical features. In fact, the balanced shape of its cone has been branded by prominent experts as the most stunning on Earth.
However, there are other volcanoes which are more easily accessible than Kronotsky or Klyuchevskaya Sopka. These are Avachinsky, Kozelsky and Koryaksky, all of which can be seen from the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. And in addition to all these beautiful volcanoes, Geyser Valley is also located in the Kronotsky Nature Reserve. This is an area defined by its geysers, which are springs which eject water and steam.
Now, the Kamchatka Peninsula is considered the most volcanically active area in all Europe and Asia. In fact, its volcanoes have actually been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This basically means that the international community has recognized the region’s heritage and scientific importance.
And it isn’t just UNESCO that has noted the relatively untouched landscape of the peninsula. No, in fact, the area has also proven to be a draw for a small number of annual tourists. And with the beautiful volcanic landscapes and sheer abundance of wildlife that the area boasts, it’s hardly a surprise.
But anyone who decides to visit the peninsula would be wise to take note of the dangers. In fact, there’s one particular valley located in the region which should be avoided at all costs. You see, numerous animals have traipsed innocently into this place, but they’ve never come back.
During the few warmer months of the year in Kamchatka, the snow which ordinarily blankets the landscape finally melts. And this serves as an opportunity for all manner of animals to explore the area to look for food. Therefore, some of them end up entering into this smaller, remote valley and ultimately perishing.
That’s right, and given the cold conditions of Kamchatka, these deceased animals lay in a preserved state after they’ve died. For instance, the bodies of bears, birds, and foxes have littered the valley, which is just over a mile in length. Yet none of them seem to present any wounds. So, how exactly did they die?
Well, the volcano expert who reportedly discovered this mysterious valley had his own thoughts. You see, Vladimir Leonov stumbled upon the spot back in 1975. And he quickly developed a theory as to what was killing the animals once they entered. Although Leonov’s no longer with us – having died in 2016 – his own son, Andrey Leonov, and former student, Deryagin, know the valley well.
Apparently, the elder Leonov and Deryagin arrived at the valley for the first time in July 1975. Now, this point isn’t particularly contentious, but some claim that a ranger named Vladimir Kalyaev found the site before them. Whatever the truth of the matter, Andrey Leonov has stressed that his late father cared more for science than for receiving credit for the discovery.
However, before the valley had been properly documented, walkers had been going down a path in its vicinity. Now, nobody had reportedly entered the place itself, but they’d been close enough to notice dead animals scattered. For some bizarre reason, though, this hadn’t given them any particular cause for concern.
But by 1975 the situation had changed. For the snow fell heavily that year, and strange depressions in the landscape had started to emerge. Inside and around these voids, numerous dead animals could be seen. In fact, in one modestly sized area alone, five bears were found, their deaths seemingly having something to do with these holes.
Crucially, we must remember that back in 1975 this area would have been part of the Soviet Union. And according to ex-student Deryagin, this meant that people who stumbled upon evidence of multiple fatalities – be they human or animal – were obliged to tell the authorities. So, Leonov located a radio and reported the dead creatures.
And the day after Leonov had phoned in, a Soviet helicopter arrived in the area. According to Deryagin, aboard were an army major and three others. It’s thought that these three may have been scientists, as they reportedly started taking notes. Then they apparently undertook a quick autopsy on the bears, retrieved samples from the creatures, and left.
But they didn’t stop Vladimir Leonov and Deryagin from analyzing the place themselves. From there, Leonov sought to detail their findings in a 1976 newspaper piece for the Kamchatskaya Pravda. And here, he christened the strange area as the “Valley of Death,” proclaiming that it “breathes extermination and devastation.”
Over the next few years, some experts backed Leonov’s claims of the lethal nature of the valley. You see, one piece from 1983 was penned by a scientist named Gennady Karpov. And in his writings, Karpov claimed that a huge number of animal remains had been found at the site across five years. These included the corpses of nine foxes, 13 bears, a few wolverines and over 40 modestly sized birds.
What’s more, another scientist went to the Valley of Death in 1975. This was a bear expert called Vitaly Nikolayenko. Having undertaken his own analyses, Nikolayenko noted that the dead bears appeared to have been healthy beforehand. However, based on the evidence of footsteps, they may have been unsteady on their feet shortly before passing out. Additionally, he stated that he himself felt unwell during his visit. And he wasn’t the only person to make such a claim.
So taking into account the observations made by people who had visited the valley, experts started to piece together a theory as to what was going on. Notably, the deceased creatures found at the site had generally perished swiftly. And their hearts had been in need of blood, whereas their lungs had been filled with it. To put it more clearly, the creatures had suffocated to death.
As far back as 1976 Vladimir Leonov had proposed that lethal volcanic gases had been behind the deaths. And it seems that he was right. All sorts of gases could be found at the site, including hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide. However, such gases would need to be administered in high doses for a considerable amount of time to prove deadly.
With that in mind, it’s been clarified that the gas behind the animal deaths was most likely carbon dioxide. Of course, carbon dioxide is in the air we breathe, but in high doses it can lead to death very quickly. More to the point, the odor-free gas is naturally produced by volcanic activity.
Compared to air, carbon dioxide is considered to be dense. As such, when it’s released by volcanic activity, it sinks down low, getting trapped in the holes which litter the valley. So when animals enter the site to look for food, they end up breathing in this carbon dioxide, which suffocates them.
All in all, then, the mysterious deaths actually have a rather simple explanation. But nonetheless, rumors still abound about the site. For instance, some people claim that the animal remains littered around the valley are being taken away. This, however, has never been proven. According to Atlas Obscura, Andrey Leonov has acknowledged that people often work near the valley. But, as he put it, “I hardly believe that they regularly clean the valley from corpses.”
So, there’s still a certain degree of mystery surrounding the Valley of Death. But ultimately, the big question concerning its lethal nature appears to have been solved, and the case put to rest. Yes, carbon dioxide is the most likely killer of the animals littering the valley. Let’s just hope the wildlife realize that one day, too.